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Giving Whistleblowers Greater Protection from Retaliation

The European Commission has recently announced its intention to strengthen the protections available to whistleblowers across the EU. 

It defines a whistleblower as someone reporting or disclosing information on violations of EU law that they observe in their work-related activities. That means it covers employees but also self-employed people, freelancers, consultants, contractors, suppliers, volunteers, unpaid trainees and job applicants.

Uncovering Unlawful Activities

This renewed focus on whistleblower protection follows high profile scandals such as the Panama Papers and Cambridge Analytica, which the Commission says show the important role whistleblowers can play in uncovering unlawful activities that damage the public interest and the welfare of citizens and society.

"The new whistleblowers' protection rules will be a game changer,” explained Vera Jourová, Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality. “In the globalised world where the temptation to maximise profit sometimes at the expense of the law is real we need to support people who are ready to take the risk to uncover serious violations of EU law. We owe it to the honest people of Europe.”

Setting Standard Levels of Protection

Protection given to whistleblowers across the EU is currently fragmented and uneven. Only 10 EU Member States currently ensure that whistleblowers are fully protected. In the remaining countries, the protection granted is partial and only applies to specific sectors or categories of employee.

The Commission’s proposal will guarantee a high level of protection for whistleblowers who report breaches of EU law by setting new, EU-wide standards. The new law will establish safe channels for reporting both within an organisation and to public authorities. It will also protect whistleblowers against dismissal, demotion and other forms of retaliation and require national authorities to inform citizens and provide training for public authorities on how to deal with whistleblowers.

The Commission highlights that whistleblowers can help to detect, investigate and sanction abuses of EU law, which is why whistleblowers need proper protection against intimidation and/or retaliation. Figures published by the Commission suggest that 36% of workers who reported misconduct experienced retaliation.

Flaws in the Proposals

The European Trade Union Confederation has welcomed the greater protections proposed by the European Commission, but has also pointed out a number of flaws in the proposals.

“With today’s announcement the Commission is responding to the need to give whistle-blowers better protection,” explained Esther Lynch, Confederal Secretary. “The proposal covers whistle-blowers in the public and private sectors, and whistle-blowing on a wide range of issues – although not pay or working conditions – including activities that are not actually illegal.”

“But it is far from perfect,” she added. “The proposal to set up internal reporting channels has merit but could also block the truth from coming out. A gratifyingly-long list of EU regulations on which whistle-blowing is protected shockingly does not include labour or employment law. Ridiculous as this might seem, as it is written in the proposal an employee could expose harm to animals or the environment but not to workers. There is also a risk of a legal minefield. The Directive seems to offer a lot of protection but the scope of the Directive is so complicated that in reality and inside a courtroom a whistle-blowing worker could easily find they are left outside the legal provisions.”

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